When Kaitlyn Reyes was in seventh grade and saw her neighbor choking, she used the Heimlich maneuver — a life-saving tool she had learned only a month earlier in the Junior Police Academy.
“I’ve always just been interested in law enforcement,” Reyes, 25, a Galloway Township Patrol Officer, said, shrugging her shoulders as if the story was no big deal.
Reyes is one of the many women who work in law enforcement in Atlantic County and nationwide. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of women in local police departments across the county has grown from 7.6 percent in 1987 to 12 percent in 2013, when the latest study was completed.
“If you can get through the academy and continue to train, you can do it,” she said.
Margate Police Department Detective Erin Borrelli, like Reyes, was a Police Explorer in the eighth grade, but then went into the Air Force after high school. The 37-year-old said the military prepared her to work in a male-dominated field.
“To me, this is like my norm,” she said. “You get a bond with these guys. It’s not like they’re protecting you, because they know that I can do my job, too.”
The Margate Police Department features a staff that is 22 percent women, according to 2016 State Police data, one of the highest percent of female officers in the county.
On the street, victims might be less intimidated by women than male officers, she said.
“The thing is, just from my opinion, everyone has their own skills and I feel sometimes that I’m good at talking to people,” she explained. “Especially when you’re dealing with a domestic or sexual assault, sometimes a woman doesn’t want to talk to a male; sometimes it’s easier to deal with the same gender.”
She said having diversity in a police department is important.
“I’m not just a police officer, I’m a mom and a wife, so there’s a couple things on the table that I bring in, too,” Borrelli said. “We bring something different to the table, but then men do, too.”
Lt. Mary Grace Cooke, 44, of the Atlantic City Police Department said she grew up on “probably” one of the worst streets in the resort — the beach block of Ocean Avenue, where shootings, stabbings, fights and drugs were so common it was dubbed “Cocaine Alley,” she said.
“We knew what we were getting into,” she said, looking at her sister, Capt. Bridget Pierce, also of the Atlantic City Police Department. “You have to have a strong personality, stick up for yourself and be a leader — that’s how you gain your respect here.”
Pierce, 45, agreed.
“As a female in general, some of the really bad guys would rather be arrested by a female because it’s sort of a softer touch,” she said, explaining that they don’t feel emasculated. “But it doesn’t matter who puts the cuffs on you.”
In Hamilton Township, where 14 percent of the officers are female, Officer Nicole Odell, 27, said that she gets noticed as a female officer, but that it’s a good thing.
“A mother at the mall with her daughter pointed and said, ‘Look! It’s a female officer!’” she said, adding that the public is beginning to notice the trend of women in policing.
Officer Christen Mandela, 32, also of the Hamilton Township Police Department, said her mother was strong and raised her without traditional gender roles around careers.
“I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something with significance,” she said. “Never did I feel growing up that there were specific roles for men or women.”
Both officers agreed it’s personality, not gender, that helps an officer excel.
Chief Donna Higbee, the first Police Chief in Atlantic County and Galloway Township history, said it was her father, a retired officer from the Galloway Police Department, who inspired her to go into policing.
“I was enamored by his ability to help people,” she said, explaining that she’s always been interested in bringing a resolution to an unknown when solving a crime. “Civil service is in my blood — just being able to give back to the community.”
Higbee, who has her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Criminal Justice, has spent her two decades in policing between patrol and investigation, as well as supervising, starting as a Class II in Wildwood, then working in Hamilton Township before coming to Galloway.
“I have worked in three departments and never felt intimidated,” she said. “I was always treated like an equal.”
While women can be good at de-escalating a situation, she said, it really boils down to personality, not gender, and the way an officer communicates, which is 90 percent of the job.
“I think (women) are a great addition, but the most qualified people — no matter gender or even ethnic background — deserve this job,” Higbee said. “We need the best and brightest.”
However, Higbee noted it can be hard to retain women in departments for a multitude of reasons, including life-changing events like marriage and having children.
“Women should know — you can do it,” said Higbee, who has two children and is married to another township police officer. “This isn’t a Monday-through-Friday, nine-to-five (job). You can do it all.”